Monthly Archives: December 2012

What Does Christmas Mean?

On Thursday, December 20th, Pope Benedict XVI wrote an article on the meaning of Christmas for the Financial Times of London. So different from the recent article in Newsweek by Bart Ehrman, struggling over what’s historical in the infancy narratives and what isn’tadoration. The pope’s article, summarizing his recent book, is about what the birth of Jesus says to our world today. Here’s his text from Vatican Radio:

A time for Christians to engage with the world

“Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” was the response of Jesus when asked about paying taxes. His questioners, of course, were laying a trap for him. They wanted to force him to take sides in the highly-charged political debate about Roman rule in the land of Israel.

Yet there was more at stake here: if Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah, then surely he would oppose the Roman overlords. So the question was calculated to expose him either as a threat to the regime, or a fraud.

Jesus’ answer deftly moves the argument to a higher plane, gently cautioning against both the politicization of religion and the deification of temporal power, along with the relentless pursuit of wealth. His audience needed to be reminded that the Messiah was not Caesar, and Caesar was not God. The kingdom that Jesus came to establish was of an altogether higher order. As he told Pontius Pilate, “My kingship is not of this world.”

The Christmas stories in the New Testament are intended to convey a similar message. Jesus was born during a “census of the whole world” taken by Caesar Augustus, the Emperor renowned for bringing the Pax Romana to all the lands under Roman rule. Yet this infant, born in an obscure and far-flung corner of the Empire, was to offer the world a far greater peace, truly universal in scope and transcending all limitations of space and time. Jesus is presented to us as King David’s heir, but the liberation he brought to his people was not about holding hostile armies at bay; it was about conquering sin and death forever.

The birth of Christ challenges us to reassess our priorities, our values, our very way of life. While Christmas is undoubtedly a time of great joy, it is also an occasion for deep reflection, even an examination of conscience. At the end of a year that has meant economic hardship for many, what can we learn from the humility, the poverty, the simplicity of the crib scene?

Christmas can be the time in which we learn to read the Gospel, to get to know Jesus not only as the Child in the manger, but as the one in whom we recognize God made Man. It is in the Gospel that Christians find inspiration for their daily lives and their involvement in worldly affairs – be it in the Houses of Parliament or the Stock Exchange. Christians shouldn’t shun the world; they should engage with it. But their involvement in politics and economics should transcend every form of ideology.

Christians fight poverty out of a recognition of the supreme dignity of every human being, created in God’s image and destined for eternal life. Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable.

Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life.

Christian belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.

Because these goals are shared by so many, much fruitful cooperation is possible between Christians and others.

Yet Christians render to Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, not what belongs to God. Christians have at times throughout history been unable to comply with demands made by Caesar.

From the Emperor cult of ancient Rome to the totalitarian regimes of the last century, Caesar has tried to take the place of God. When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated world-view. Rather, it is because they are free from the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.

In Italy, many crib scenes feature the ruins of ancient Roman buildings in the background. This shows that the birth of the child Jesus marks the end of the old order, the pagan world, in which Caesar’s claims went virtually unchallenged.

Now there is a new king, who relies not on the force of arms, but on the power of love. He brings hope to all those who, like himself, live on the margins of society. He brings hope to all who are vulnerable to the changing fortunes of a precarious world. From the manger, Christ calls us to live as citizens of his heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that all people of good will can help to build here on earth.

3 Comments

Filed under Religion

The Dawn from on High

Today we buried Brother Jim Fitzgerald, who served our community in Union CIty for many years. I took this picture from our residence in Union City one December morning last year when we were reading from Luke’s gospel and Zechariah’s canticle which says “the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”

Jim loved this place. I preached this homily at his funeral Mass today:

Brother James Fitzgerald, CP            +December 15, 2012

A year or so ago, Bro. Jim Fitzgerald and I were taken by Father Jerome Vereb on a “mystery ride” in Pittsburgh. We went to Knoxville, not far from our monastery in the Southside, where Jerome pointed out streets and homes that some of our priests and brothers came from. At one street he announced dramatically the purpose of our mystery ride. Pointing to an old decrepit building, he said “That’s where young Jim Fitzgerald got his start in the world of media at the King’s School of Oratory.

I remember Jim qualifying that claim. He didn’t graduate from the King’s School for Oratory where many of early radio’s future stars trained, but– yes it was true– his mother brought him there, as a young boy of 6 or 7, to get some elocution lessons for a career in radio. It was the 1930s and radio was going nationwide; Pittsburgh was the center for the new media.

Jim did commercials and acted on the radio as a child. Then as a young boy at Central Catholic High School he was an announcer. For almost 46 years he had a distinguished career on radio in Pittsburgh and later in Ocean City, Maryland. He was a familiar voice on WWSW, one of Pittsburgh’s premier stations.

His radio career became secondary after Jim made a retreat in high school at the Passionist Monastery of St. Paul of the Cross in Pittsburgh. He heard Jesus inviting him: “If you will be perfect, sell what you have and give to the poor, and come follow me.” In the Passionists he saw the way to follow Jesus and for the rest his life he found his friends and spiritual guidance in our community.

He took vows as a Passionist in 1947 but had to leave formal studies in 1949 for reasons of health. He resumed his career in radio, but the Passionists kept drawing him like a magnet. He helped out regularly at St. Paul’s Monastery and later St. Michael’s residence in Union City, NJ, and in 1984 became a member of that community, and eventually took vows again in December 2008.

Jim was a deeply spiritual man. In his room the other day I noticed near his chair books he was reading: a book on prayer, on the theology of history, on the spiritual life and some crossword puzzles. He was a lifelong learner who never lost his desire to know God more. His room is empty today; it’s as if he got his wish.

He was deeply committed to the Passionist life. Jim was the only one I know who read everything that came from our superiors in Rome or here in the States or from Passionists anywhere and kept records of what they said in his files. All you had to say was, “Jim, do you know where I can find something on those Spanish Passionists killed during the Spanish Civil War?” In 20 minutes something would be there. He was devoted to the Passionist life and to its ministries. For years, he dedicated himself to our publications and put his considerable talents into our various publishing efforts.

At the same time, as anyone who lived with him in Union City knows, Jim would do anything for you. If you needed anything from the store, he’d get it. He kept the kitchen stocked; he cleaned the guest rooms, so many ordinary things. He was a humble man, a friend, who served us all.

So we remember him.

Our gospel today recalls the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, in which we remember another life and another death. “Those who knew Jesus,” Luke says, “stood at a distance, including the women who had followed him from Galilee and saw these events.” (Luke 23,49) Like us here, they looked on at a death and remembered things of his life.

But our reading does not stop at death and neither should we. It goes on to describe something more: the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection: “He’s has been raised,” the angels say to the women who come to anoint the body of Jesus and don’t find it. He is “the Living One.”

Jim is living. He’s sharing in the risen life of Jesus, so he’s not just a memory. His life is changed, not ended.

Often after funerals, Jim would quote from the marvelous hymn “For All the Saints.”  “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” “Let’s get back to the struggle,” he’d say.

Now, he goes towards the promise of glory. Is that life detached from this one; are those gone before us oblivious to our world? If the Risen Jesus is the model, those sharing his risen life carry this world with them into the next, and they bring from that world wisdom and  support for ours and for us. They bring what they loved into eternity, and with the clearer vision they have now, with a surer knowledge of God’s plan, with the power of the Risen Christ, they walk with us, as the Risen Jesus walked with his own. Unrecognized, they’re still here.

It’s the communion of saints that we celebrate here in this Eucharist where earth is joined to heaven. Now, a good man joins that communion.  We don’t lose him. You, his family, do not lose him. We, the Passionists, do not lose him. He’s with us in another grace-filled way, a strengthening way, a real way, as the ancient hymn says:

“And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
 Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
 And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
 Alleluia! Alleluia!

Victor Hoagland, CP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under Passionists, Religion

3rd Sunday of Advent

Readings are here.

Knowing who you are is one of the most important tasks we have in this life.

Here’s a homily on John the Baptist  by St. Augustine. He had to distinguish himself from Jesus, the Messiah.

John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives for ever…

Because it is hard to distinguish word from voice, even John himself was thought to be the Christ. The voice was thought to be the word. But the voice acknowledged what it was, anxious not to give offence to the word.

I am not the Christ, he said, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. And the question came: Who are you, then? He replied: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord.

The voice of one crying in the wilderness is the voice of one breaking the silence. Prepare the way for the Lord, he says, as though he were saying: “I speak out in order to lead him into your hearts, but he does not choose to come where I lead him unless you prepare the way for him.”

What does prepare the way mean, if not “pray well”? What does prepare the way mean, if not “be humble in your thoughts”? We should take our lesson from John the Baptist. He is thought to be the Christ; he declares he is not what they think. He does not take advantage of their mistake to further his own glory.

If he had said, “I am the Christ,” you can imagine how readily he would have been believed, since they believed he was the Christ even before he spoke. But he did not say it; he acknowledged what he was. He pointed out clearly who he was; he humbled himself.

He saw where his salvation lay. He understood that he was a lamp, and his fear was that it might be blown out by the wind of pride.

2 Comments

Filed under Passionists, Religion

Newtown, CT, A Tragedy of Biblical Proportions

The tragedy at Newtown, CT, is a tragedy of biblical proportions. Near Christmas, one thinks of the slaughter of the innocents by Herod after Jesus was born, a story in Matthew’s gospel. Then there’s the family dimension: in the first book of the bible, Genesis, Cain kills his brother Abel.

I’d like to offer a few reflections on the violence of that tragedy and also some suggestions about what to do, besides praying for the recent victims and their families.

A development has gone on in our church over the centuries about violence in every form, from physical violence like murder, the death penalty, torture, rape, abortion, child abuse, war, to verbal violence like lying, bullying, verbal abuse.

The Old Testament is filled with violence. Some early Christians like Marcion (c AD144 ) actually wanted to suppress the Old Testament because God seemed be an angry God who condoned violence and acted violently. The ancient world was indeed a violent world. Yet we believe that God, who always works with what’s there– sought to bring that world gradually to peace and non-violence.

In the New Testament Jesus, the Word of God, revealed that purpose in a unique way. Jesus refused to use violence or force to achieve his kingdom. He rejected the concept of a warrior Messiah.  He taught us to love our enemies. “Peace, I leave you, my peace I give you.” In his passion and death on a cross he took on the violence of the world and responded to it with a non-violent love.

Our society, it seems safe to say, is becoming a coarser, more violent place. Violence has become acceptable. Let’s begin with life as the media sees it.

I know you can blame the media too much, but let me give you an example of what I mean. The website of the American Catholic Bishops offers an evaluation of current movies. I was looking at it the other day and if my recollections are right, 8 out of 10 current movies evaluated were considered overly violent.

On television there are programs that critics characterize as “Dark Television.”  They’re called that because the characters in these programs are not really “good” people in the real sense of the word. They don’t have much of a sense of morality, or loyalty or justice. They’ve adjusted to the dark world they inhabit every day. They’re not interested in striving for something better. They’re coolly cynical.

I don’t know too much about video games, but from what I hear I wonder if some of them encourage violence as the quickest and acceptable way to win and to get things done.

I don’t think it’s being intrusive, if you’re parents, or grandparents or anyone watching over kids, to know what they watch and tell them if it’s wrong and not healthy.

Our gospel for this 3rd Sunday of Advent is an interesting account of the teaching of John the Baptist. He gives simple directions to soldiers and tax-collectors. To soldiers, “Don’t bully people.” To tax-collectors, “Don’t cheat people.” According to John we grow by giving. “If you have two cloaks give one to someone who has none. If you have food, do the same.”

The other day on National Public Radio there was a piece on kids and empathy. The speakers seemed to say that we’re wired from the womb with the ability to give of ourselves and to empathize with others. Some people have it; some will never have it. I didn’t hear anything said about religion or a moral code or teaching young people how to live. Those things didn’t seem to figure at all.

I don’t buy that. I don’t believe that young man who went into that school was wired from birth to be like that. He may have been severely damaged socially, but did a violent culture also suggest the path he took? Something was missing in his life; someone was missing.  We can’t let that happen. The consequences are too horrible.

3 Comments

Filed under Religion

Fairness Isn’t Easy To Come By

Gospels are holy books read in church or perhaps in the quiet of our room. But they’re about real human beings, who can get angry and unfair. Even the best people are not always at their best.

When Matthew’s gospel was written, in Galilee or Syria about 90 AD, the pharisees were leading a revival in Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and they were competing fiercely with the followers of Jesus for the soul of Judaism. The fighting wasn’t always fair–on either side.

The pharisees and their allies called Jesus a drunkard who ate too many meals with the wrong kind of people, among other things. His friend John the Baptist was a crazy eccentric, they said.

We don’t like them saying that about Jesus and John the Baptist, of course, but the followers of Jesus said some pretty nasty things about the pharisees, if the 23rd chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel is any indication.

Fairness isn’t easy to come by in human life and relationships. We caricature people so easily, especially when they are on the other side of an argument.  Our tongues can become uncontrollable and that goes for our judgments too. We like to win, often at any cost, even by running down someone else.

We don’t like the pharisees we hear about in the gospels, but be careful:  they’re not unlike ourselves.

Leave a comment

Filed under Religion

The Birth of Jesus Christ

mary 10

On the final evening of our mission last night at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware we reflected on the basic prayers of the season during a short catechesis and  the Infancy narrative from Luke in a longer sermon.

Advent and Christmas are rich with aids to prayer. Let’s reclaim the symbols of the season so they can lead us to reflection and prayer. These days we put lights in the dark, a religious symbol; Jesus said he was the light of the world. The Christmas tree is a symbol of the tree of paradise. Let’s pray in the places where we see them that God bless those places and the people in them.  The carols are little catechisms, let’s listen to their message.

So many of our basic prayers from this season are taken from the bible. Let’s link them to the bible narratives they came from. The Our Father is an obvious example. That’s the prayer Jesus not only taught but lived.

The Angelus and the Hail Mary are prayers linked to the great follower of Jesus, Mary his mother. They are drawn from the Annunciation and the Visitation and mystery of the birth of Jesus. The angel not only spoke to Mary but to us as well. Doesn’t the Word made flesh also dwells with us? We have a model for daily prayer in the prayers associated with Mary. Let those prayers teach us how to pray.

The infancy narrative from Luke is our primary reading for Christmas. Keep in mind that Luke sees Jesus as the world’s Savior  whose message goes out to the whole world. Luke introduces his narrative with Caesar Augustus, ruler of the Roman world, who unified the world and brought it peace. A providential figure, he facilitated the spread of the good news brought by the Child in the manger. Later in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke relates the growth of the church as it reaches the whole world, even Rome itself.

Luke’s gospel is an optimistic gospel that points  to continual growth for the church. Beginning with the poor shepherds on the hillside, Jesus will draw all peoples, all nations,  to himself.

Of course, today we wonder about the spread of Christianity as we in the western world experience a decline.  A recent survey in England noted that only 59% of the English identified themselves as Christian today. Ten years ago it was 79%.  I don’t think our situation in the US is  too different.

One British commentator says that we are moving now to time when religion will be embraced by decision and commitment instead of by cultural acceptance.

A survey last year from the Pew Research Center gave some interesting statistics about religion throughout the world. There are approximately 6.9 billion people in the world in 2010.  2.18 billion are Christians, about a third of the world’s population.While Christianity is declining in the western world it’s growing rapidly in Africa and Asian.

The report notes that since 1910 a great shift has taken place among world religions. Instead of being concentrated in Europe, Christianity has grown enormously in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, where there were relatively few Christians at the beginning of the 20th century.  “Christianity has become a global religion. Christians are also geographically widespread – so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.”

A third of the world’s population call themselves Christian. Half of them are Roman Catholic.

Over two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, of poor unknown parents. He grew up unrecognized in a small discounted Galilean town called Nazareth. For a few years he taught, he healed people of illnesses, he raised the dead to life, he gathered disciples who followed him. They abandoned him when he was put to death on a cross. Then he rose from the dead.

You would might expect that history would forget him as it does so many others, like Caesar Augustus.  But Jesus Christ hasn’t been forgotten.   Over two billion people in our world today remember him and follow him.

“Christianity has become a global religion.” Luke’s portrayal of the church is on target.

Leave a comment

Filed under Religion

Spiritual Childhood

peaceable kingdom copy

This evening at the Catholic Chapel at Dover Air Force Base I spoke on spiritual childhood, an important part of the spirituality of Advent and Christmas. “Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said. Isaiah saw a child at the center of the Peaceable Kingdom.

In the short catechesis as our service began, I recommended the bible as a way to know Jesus Christ as a teacher of faith and prayer. I like the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE) because it’s the version we use in our liturgy and it’s got great notes. Its recent revision takes into account newly discovered biblical manuscripts, the latest archeological finds and historical and biblical scholarship.

The New Jerusalem Bible and the RSVP translations are also good.

Many still use the King James version of the bible, one of the great literary treasures of the English language, but it has drawbacks. It hasn’t benefited from the advances in biblical scholarship that have taken place since its creation in the 16th century.

According to a recent survey of Catholics in England, most English Catholics still don’t read the bible much; usually they only know it from Mass on Sundays. That’s also true here in the United States, I think.

It’s important that we take our direction from the 2nd Vatican Council which sees the bible at the heart of our spirituality and a bridge to better relationships with other Christian churches.

Pope Benedict offers a fine example of how to use the bible in his three volumes entitled Jesus of Nazareth. His last volume, on the infancy narratives, was just published before Christmas.

I spoke in my main presentation about the spirituality of childhood, reflecting on a description given by St. Leo the Great. To be a child means to be free from crippling anxieties, forgetful of injuries, sociable and wondering before all things.

7 Comments

Filed under Religion